Research: Students value college, but not for the reasons you’d think

Bigger paychecks and school reputation score lower with students than a meaningful college experience, according to "Value of College" research..

With the cost of a college education uppermost in the minds of students and their parents, the actual value of college, and even how you might begin to measure it, increasingly has come under scrutiny. If conventional thinking is that higher education represents a means to an end and a way to accelerate a student’s post-college earning potential, then that view is counter to new research conducted by our company, Barnes & Noble College, and Money.

Encompassing responses from more than 3,000 current college students, their parents, as well as parents of graduates, our “Value of College” survey represents one of the most comprehensive looks into college student expectations.

The Value of College report reveals that the current generation of college students have distinct views on the value of their educational experience that go far beyond their grade point average. To me, it sends a strong message to our company and schools about the key factors students use in selecting a school and, perhaps just as importantly, why they choose to leave.

Looking at student responses on the whole, it may stand to reason that the survey tells us that less expensive schools deliver as much or more perceived value and benefits as more expensive ones. While cost is clearly a major driver (63 percent of students say they eliminated some colleges for consideration due to cost; 55 percent for parents), and the quality of academics definitely matters, equally important are student/faculty collaboration and social fit.

(Next page: Value of College research results; responding to what students say they value)

Fulfillment over Salary

Our findings underscore the overwhelming point that today’s students are less interested in chasing financial success than preparing for a fulfilling career. It endorses earlier research by our company into the Millennial Mindset, which revealed that some 90 percent of parents and students in that survey ranked “preparing for a fulfilling career” the most valuable benefit of a college education–about 20 points higher than those who responded “preparing for a high-paying career.”

These kinds of findings are in stark contrast to traditional motivations for obtaining a college degree, such as increasing earning potential or building a strong alumni network to create career success. Students indicated they pursue a college education for the lifelong experience that it provides, not the money. For them, it isn’t about the prestigious reputation a school might have, but about the importance of their personal college experience. This doesn’t mean that academic success isn’t significant, but students said exposure to new ideas and developing critical thinking and communication skills are nearly equally important – exactly what employers say is essential for career success.

Real-World Experience over Just Academics

That contrast between academic excellence and campus life experience is an area where many college administrators are seeking to strike the perfect balance.

“Students come with the expectation of a lot of support and services,” noted John Sweeney, ‎senior vice president for finance and business/chief financial officer at Providence College. “They tend to be acutely aware of events going on in the whole world–beyond the campus–and are affected by them personally and emotionally. As a college, we’ve maintained our core values and built on that by having a better understanding of, and focus on, the diversity of our population.”

Responding to Students

“A lot of thinking now is that a student’s success is tied to their level of non-academic engagement on campus: are they feeling accepted, are they enjoying the college experience,” added Joe Mildenhall, chief information officer at Grand Canyon University. “And that’s taking us firmly down the road of not only enhanced academic support, but also social engagement.”

Supporting those kinds of social experiences is a role Barnes & Noble College and many of our college and university partners have been taking seriously as schools continue to face student retention challenges, particularly with new students. It’s why we engage pro-actively with new students right from the moment of acceptance.

For example, we use communication across all channels to provide tips on how to make the transition to college life, how to navigate campus and, of course, how to secure the most affordable course materials. As new students come onto campus, they are welcomed on more than 450 of our campuses with VIP Nights–a private event at the campus bookstore completely dedicated to providing peer-to-peer guidance from student booksellers. Events like VIP nights are designed to help them feel less overwhelmed. 71 percent of the students we interviewed told us this event made their transition to college easier, while 70 percent met their first friend there, making their connection to their school easier and more comfortable. We believe that programs like this, along with career fairs and DeStress events around midterms and finals, are an opportunity for every college and university to start building meaningful connections that tie firmly into the collective fabric of their school.

However, that experience doesn’t just begin and end at a campus store or dining facilities. Faculty and administrators arguably need the most support and resources to deliver an exceptional experience and value to their students.

Our newest research shows that non-traditional students (those over 25 years of age) who have positive relationships with their professors feel more connected to their school. For this reason, we connect closely with the 250,000 faculty we serve, discussing student mentoring, sharing the latest innovations in digital learning platforms, and hosting publisher fairs at the store. Through these efforts, we’re able to support not just what works in the classroom, but also what’s going to help students achieve overall success.

Moving Forward

As you think about your communications to prospective students, I see an opportunity for college administrators to listen to what students are really looking for in a school.

Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know; research illustrates that students no longer believe that paying more tuition buys more value. Classroom success is vital, but social factors can make a difference, since they represent an opportunity to understand and act on what different students need from their college experience, and how prepared they need to be for what happens before they step on campus and throughout their college journey.

eSchool Media Contributors